Unreal Tournament 2004
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Atari halUnreal Tournament was the right game for the right time, delivering more than anyone could have possibly imagined at a time in gaming history where gamers were getting less rather than more. Unreal Tournament 2003 was a technological breakthrough, a superb demonstration of the newest technology, but was a victim to it's own pedigree and the fact that despite the beautiful new look, the abbreviated development cycle didn't leave enough time to stuff it full of the goodness that gamers had enjoyed with the previous title. The innovative gameplay elements introduced by UT2003 proved too much for traditionalists, compounded by the frustration of bumping their virtual heads on the very decoration that the game was showcasing. Not that it was a bad game by any means - it was simply a hurdle that many were unwilling to adjust to. At the same time a sea of new vehicle based team games were hitting the scene and taking the gaming world by storm.Enter UT2004. It's evident that Epic took suggestions and complaints very seriously regarding nearly every aspect of Unreal Tournament 2003, because the laundry list of additions and subtractions is miles long and aimed right at the heart of those wayward gamers. The return of Assault was a crowd pleaser that caters directly to the objective based war types; the addition of Onslaught was a headshot to those popular vehicle games; and the return of classic weapons such as the Sniper Rifle and the tweaking of gameplay and map flow was an olive branch to people stubbornly clinging to Unreal Tournament. The menu system was a nice compromise between those people wanting a little flash in their interface and those enamoured with the old Window-esque GUI. It has more bells and whistles than you'll know what to do with. You can literally spend hours customizing it. Incorporating long-time community improvements like UTV (ability to remotely monitor an ongoing match), map voting, and custom map lists while adding innovations pointing users towards top mods, maps, and websites all combine to make this a menu tour de force.The first thing you'll notice upon firing up the game is the remixed Unreal Tournament intro music. The music in-game follows the same trend using largely driving, rather than atmospheric, tunes. Some of the sounds have been beefed up since the demo, namely the Goliath tank primary fire and weapon pickups, both of which are more commanding and useful. The voice announcements are over-the-top as usual with some of the most humorous coming from Onslaught... "Pancake!", "Vehicular Manslaughter!", and "Carjacked!" (followed by an appropriate sounding car alarm) making me laugh out loud. The main addition in the sound department is truly grounbreaking... the numerous voice enhancements. The inclusion of Voice Over IP means that more and more players are communicating in online matches. Yes, that can be good when you are able to talk strategy in your team channel, but it can also be annoying when Player decides to share his favorite tunes or insults over the public channel. Smartly, Epic have included options to silence those offenders. Making use of text to speech software (included in Windows XP and downloadable on other platforms) is innovative as well. No need to monitor each tiny text message from teammates when they flash across the screen... a semi-robotic voice parses the text for you. I suggest visiting your Control Panel and speeding up the voice a bit from default, or perhaps trying one of the alternate voices.The UT2004 maps show Epic's new roadmap to level design with static meshes and terrain. The new maps are much more open with great care given to keeping level decoration out of the way of the player. The maps are still stunningly beautiful and they continue to explore new locales from Atlantis at the bottom of the seas to a roaring desert convoy. The new maps are a mixture of old and new ideas, ranging from remakes of old classics and remixes of maps to suit different gametypes to levels that are sure to be instant favorites. There are far more new maps for DeathMatch than any other gametype and all of them are solid, though a few of the 1on1 maps are a tad too similar for my tastes. Onslaught was far and away the most game type played with the UT2004 demo, and Epic would be smart to consider supporting it in a future bonus pack. There are truly some gems in the bunch and even the remakes are most welcome. I have to take a second to mention Onslaught, given that it's been an instant success. It's not an easy thing to do to add vehicles to a game that is so tightly balanced as the Unreal Tournament series, but I think they've succeeded on a number of levels. First, the game type itself seems very balanced - remarkable given that it's entirely new. The node setup ensures that the flow of action is clear and the inclusion of the custom node link setup was pure genius and it ensures that each map will provide maximum entertainment value. Second, the vehicles themselves are not only balanced well, but have a distinct Unreal flair. Multiple firing options, combos, and even a number of horns on each make these some of the most distinctive and enjoyable virtual vehicles I have had the pleasure of comandeering.Bot AI, while continuing to improve, is still the best in the biz. I share some of the others' gripes though about the occasional "oblivious" bot. Bottom line is that these are the best bots around, they play team games quite well and tremendously add to the value of the game in that it is totally playable offline. You really can't say enough about this massive package that Epic, Digital Extremes, Psyonix, Streamline Studios, and the massive number of community mappers have put together. It will take you hours just to look through the entire game and countless days, weeks, months, and years to enjoy it. The singleplayer game this time around has some real meat to it. The team selection process and prize purse/betting additions really make the game shine offline as well. Even budding content creators can take advantage of the massive online resources to Make Something Unreal... and maybe win a few nice prizes in the process. It's a good time to be a part of the Tournament.